The Burnout Equation

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Credit: Toast-san / DeviantArt

I wrote about burning out, and the aftermath, and my post-burnout-phase. But the other day a friend and I were talking about burnout in general terms, and seeing other people burn out, why that is, what it looks like. It’s interesting, because we know it when we see it, but we don’t talk about what it is, and how we get it.

Burning out is a function of ROI. It’s outcomes you care about, over effort you put in. Result gets too low, for too long, that’s burnout. Tolerance for low ROI varies, and maybe grit is a measure of that.

Which is why you can see when people are burning out. You notice that they have got more jaded. See that they started to care less, because caring became too hard. These are the classic responses to burning out – to make the equation more manageable – reduce the effort, reduce the attachment to the outcome.

When I got to that point, I took a break, which worked wonders. But now I pro-actively work on the equation.

Diversify Your Outcomes

If you only care about one thing, and that thing is not going so well, your life is not going so well.

Say you’re focused on getting promoted, and you miss out, maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with how hard you are working, or how talented you are (e.g. you’re on a project that is failing). That sucks. Your equation just blew up.

But, if you make that just a part of it, and add something else up there like learning a new language, or honing some “soft” skills then maybe you still want to hide away for the weekend with your favourite TV series and some ice cream, but you can come back Monday focused on one of the aspects that is more rewarding right now.

This is why I find having a side project super helpful, because it’s free from the vagaries of other people. There may never be a spectacular ROI on it, but because I have complete control, there’s never a zero return on things I care about, either.

Refocus your Effort

Some things in the tech industry are just pretty thankless. Process, or (for women especially) emotional work. We pretend that we are so special and brilliant that we don’t need things that other more mature industries need like standards, quality control, and managers. We’re wrong, but being right is not always it’s own reward.

Maybe you’ve spent time making sure that there is a process, and as a result you have high test coverage, low defect rate, and you’re shipping on time. But nobody notices, because good process is unobtrusive, and deadlines are seen as some unreasonable and creativity sapping bureaucratic overhead. It’s a mystery, why that project was on time, and that other one was so late. The explanation is not chronic disorganisation and poor prioritisation, but that the late one much have been so much harder. To which I say – probably, but did it have to be?

If your efforts are spent in places which are (often culturally, and structurally) unappreciated, maybe you want to put your efforts elsewhere. Sometimes this means another project, and sometimes this means how you split your time. If you spend 50% of your time cleaning up after other people (whether they are writing bad code, or just being disorganised), and it’s getting you nowhere, try and reduce that to 20% and see what happens.

One thing I do, to manage the amount of time I spend on process stuff, is if I think there is a process problem I point it out, but then when no-one acts on it, I let it go. Then later, when the same problem manifests I say, “you know, I really think X would help” and specifically mention what I think it addresses. Or, if I spend a bunch of time writing tests, I focus on why, “now we can just make minor changes without having to do all this manual evaluation”.

Recently I tweeted about quitting corporate feminism, and instead focusing on supporting other women (and sometimes men) who are trying to do things. This has helped me on a number of levels. Firstly, it makes it easier to be more intentional, because I don’t ask “is this the Right Thing do do?” (an overwhelming number of things are) but “who am I supporting?” and “do I want to support them?” Secondly, it means I stopped caring about the coorperate ROI, and my ROI is from the person I’m supporting – did I help them? Do they value what I did?

Play a Longer Game

Sometimes the answer is just… patience. You work really hard, and you do something great… and at the end of the quarter, or year, it might be reflected in your evaluation or bonus. You do a bunch of grungy refactoring work, and finally months later people realise they have been able to move faster as a result. You set up a test framework and system and 6 months later someone finally observes that there have been fewer outages, and rollbacks.

Exercise is a good example of something that has to be a long game, that people often give up on. I’ll spend a couple of hours in the gym today, but if I notice that tomorrow it will only be in a bad way from being sore. Keep going anyway.

Blogging is another. I had a really low moment a few weeks ago where I felt like I was just pushing things out into the void, and that it was pointless. But I kept gong, and a while later I get two messages within a couple of hours of each other from people telling me how much they appreciated my writing.

x/y = z

Sometimes we can’t control the end result, but we can always control parts of how we get there. Sometimes we need to step back, and see the full equation, insert in some extra things. Sometimes we need to step away. Knowing which is which is hard – waiting patiently, and waiting futilely look very similar for a long time.

The best thing we can do is be intentional about our own personal burnout equations. We need to know what outcomes we care about, and whether the effort we are putting into them is sustainable. It’s a lot easier to ask for what you need when you know what that is.

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